Myth: The ADHD diagnosis is very much “in the eye of the beholder.”
This is one of many ways in which the ADHD diagnosis has been ridiculed in the popular media. The idea here is that because we cannot diagnose ADHD with an objective brain scan or a blood test, the diagnosis is “subjective” and subject to the whim and fancy of the doctor making the diagnosis.
Fact: The ADHD diagnosis is reliable and valid.
The usefulness of a diagnosis does not depend on whether it came from a blood test, a brain test or from talking to a patient. A test is useful if it is reliable, which means that two doctors can agree who does and does not have the disorder, and if it is valid, which means that the diagnosis predicts something that is important to the doctor and patient such as whether or not the patient will respond to a specific treatment. Many research studies show that doctors usually agree about who does and does not have ADHD. The reason for this is that we have very strict rules that one must use to make a diagnosis. Much work over many decades has also shown ADHD to be a valid diagnosis. For details see: Faraone, S. V. (2005). The scientific foundation for understanding attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a valid psychiatric disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 14, 1-10. The short story is that the diagnosis of ADHD is very useful for predicting what treatments will be effective and what types of problems ADHD patients are likely to experience in the future.
Myth: ADHD is not a medical disorder. It’s just the extreme of normal childhood energy
The mental health professions use the term “disorder” to describe ADHD, but others argue that what we view as a disorder named ADHD is simply the extreme of normal childhood energy. After all, most healthy children run around and don’t always listen to their parents. Doesn’t the ADHD child or adult simply have a higher dose of normal behavior?
Fact: Doctors have good reasons to describe ADHD as a disorder
The idea that the extreme of a normal behavior cannot be a disorder is naïve. Consider hypertension (high blood pressure). Everyone has a blood pressure, but when blood pressure exceeds a certain value, doctors get worried because people with high values are at risk for serious problems, such as heart attacks. Consider depression. Everyone gets sad from time to time, but people who are diagnosed with depression cannot function in normal activities and, in the extreme, are at risk for killing themselves. ADHD is not much different from hypertension or depression. Many people will show some signs of ADHD at some times but not all have a “disorder.” We call ADHD a disorder not only because the patient has many symptoms but also because that patient is impaired, which means that they cannot carry out normal life activities. For example, the ADHD child cannot attend to homework or the ADHD adult cannot hold a job, despite adequate levels of intelligence. Like hypertension, untreated ADHD can lead to serious problems such as failing in school, accidents or an inability to maintain friendships. These problems are so severe that the US Center for Disease Control described ADHD as “a serious public health problem.”
Myth: The ADHD diagnosis was developed to justify the use of drugs to subdue the behaviors of children.
This is one of the more bizarre myths about ADHD. The theory here is that, in order to sell more drugs, pharmaceutical companies invented the diagnosis of ADHD to describe normal children who were causing some problems in the past.
Fact: ADHD was discovered by doctors long before ADHD medications were discovered.
People who believe this myth do not know the history of ADHD. In 1798, long before there were any drugs for ADHD, Alexander Crichton, a Scottish doctor described a “disease of attention,” which we would not call ADHD. ADHD symptoms were described by a German doctor, Heinrich Hoffman, in 1845 and by a British doctor, George Still, in 1902. Each of these doctors found that inattentive and overactive behaviors could lead to a problem that should be of concern to doctors. If they had had medications to treat ADHD they probably would have prescribed them to their patients. But a medication for ADHD was not discovered until 1937 and even then, it was discovered by accident. Dr. Charles Bradley from Providence Rhode Island had been doing brain scanning studies of troubled children in a hospital school. The scans left the children with headaches that Dr. Bradley thought would be relieved by an amphetamine drug. When he gave this drug to the children after the scan, it did not help their headaches. However, the next day, their teachers reported that the children were attending and behaving much better in the classroom. Dr. Bradley had accidentally discovered that amphetamine was very helpful in reducing ADHD symptoms and, in fact, amphetamine drugs are commonly used to treat ADHD today. So, as you can see, the diagnosis of ADHD was not “invented” by anyone; it was discovered by doctors long before drugs for ADHD were known.
Myth: Brain scans or computerized tests of brain function can diagnose ADHD.
Someday, this myth may become fact, but for now and the near future it is a solid myth. You may think this is strange. After all, we know that ADHD is a brain disorder and that neuroimaging studies have documented structural and functional abnormalities in the brains of patients with ADHD. If ADHD is a biological disorder, why don’t we have a biological test for the diagnosis?
Fact: No brain test has been shown to accurately diagnose ADHD.
ADHD is a biologically based disorder, but there are many biological changes and each of these is so small that they are not useful as diagnostic tests. We also think that there are several biological pathways to ADHD. That means that not all ADHD patients will show the same underlying biological problems. So for now, the only officially approved method of diagnosing ADHD is by asking patients and/or their parents about ADHD symptoms as described in the American Psychological Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.